My adventures with the Fern & Roby Raven loudspeakers started last year, right before I left my house in Western New York to drive down to the Capital Audiofest in the suburbs of Washington DC. Minutes before I left, I double-checked the CAF website for the address so I could put it into the GPS and there it was, on the landing page, an image of a beautiful single-driver loudspeaker with glorious mid-century style wooden legs and a curiously wide baffle. It reminded me of a perfect pair of Quad 57’s with those classic proportions, as well as that graceful tilting back of the entire enclosure upon those lovely gams. I said to myself “Whatever those are, I have to hear them.”
They were, of course, the Fern & Roby Raven Loudspeakers.
Months later, I found myself in Richmond VA, home of Christopher Hildebrand and Tektonics Design Group, the factory where Fern & Roby Raven loudspeakers are made. By hand. With extreme care, precision craftsmanship and a love for that glowing mid-century aesthetic. I brought Eric Franklin Shook with me to take photographs, which you’ve already seen in the Summer Issue of The Occasional. Eric also took many shots of a pair of Ravens being cleaned up, boxed in crates and lovingly put into the back of my SUV. From there I drove home, hooked them up and fell in love.
This idea of high-end audio’s recent embrace of lifestyle products is timely, in my opinion. When I was growing up, a lifestyle product meant something that looked cool and would be the envy of your friends, usually at the cost of ultimate sound quality. That, of course, separated the true “purist” audiophiles from the well-heeled folk who merely appreciated the finer things in life. Real audiophiles wanted simple black boxes that produced state of the art sound. “We put the money into the inside, where it counts! You won’t be paying extra for fancy cabinets or a military-grade chassis that do nothing to improve the sound!”
In the last couple of decades, that has obviously changed. You can have both. The market now dictates it. We need to live with this stuff. When we listen to music, what do we stare at? Our gear. That’s why there should be no shame in buying something that looks as beautiful as it sounds.
Christopher Hildebrand gets this. His other loudspeaker designs, The Cube, and the Raven II Bookshelf monitors, are one of the few bookshelf speakers that are designed to sound great perched on a bookshelf. Put these small loudspeakers on a pair of stands several feet away from the back walls like most monitors, and you’ll miss a lot of the magic. (Christopher has recently developed a new stand for the Raven II that’s similar to the small lifts you’ll find under a pair of Klipsch Heresy IIIs.) When I visited Christopher’s home on the way to the factory, I was able to hear this for myself. It’s true—the Cubes filled the large room with beautiful sound, even as I walked around. I haven’t even mentioned that the speakers were sitting on a bookshelf a good six feet off the floor.
Lifestyle, indeed. Christopher makes products that are easier to live with than most high-end audio components. You don’t just buy one of his turntables or speakers and then push them out of sight. They become part of the room and, more importantly, part of your everyday life.
The $9500/pair Fern & Roby Ravens are, as I explained, a single-driver high-efficiency design. That high-efficiency rating is 96 dB with a 4-ohm impedance. It’s been about a decade since my SET/high-efficiency speaker days, and I miss those days terribly sometimes—so it was a genuine treat to match amps to the Ravens. I used both the Luxman LX-380 that I reviewed in the Summer Issue of The Occasional (14 wpc into 4 ohms) and the Linear Tube Audio Z-10 integrated (12 wpc) that Christopher prefers and sells through Fern & Roby. (Review coming very soon.)
That magical single driver is the X1-04 from SEAS’ Exotic line. It looks like a traditional single-driver unit, complete with whizzer cone for the high frequencies. My experience with these types of speaker drivers is that they excel in the midrange, giving instruments that “hanging in the air” immediacy, but they usually fall a little short at the frequency extremes. Not so with the Ravens—the stated frequency response is 30 Hz-20,000 Hz when the port on the baffle is left open. (You can get a plug to make the Ravens a sealed enclosure as well.)
As Christopher states:
“When installing the plug to make the enclosures a sealed box with a nice low Q, the Ravens crossover at 67 Hz and roll-off with a 3 dB slope to make them perfect to integrate with an excellent sub for those who want to get down into the 20 Hz range.”
The Ravens also use WBT speaker terminals and the internal wiring is custom-made from Chris Sommovigo of Black Cat Cable. (Black Cat is also the preferred cable line featured at the Fern & Roby showroom.) The ports are machined from solid 6061 aluminum right on the factory floor and are hard anodized to make them tougher. Those beautiful cabinets, also built in house, are made from solid American Walnut and the baffles are made from ¾” thick Richlite panels. The entire enclosures are designed to reduce resonance inside the box, and that took considerable engineering from Christopher’s team to maximize those results.
Due to their rather wide dimensions, the Ravens like a little bit of space on the horizontal plane. If you’ve visited a Fern & Roby exhibit room at a high-end audio show, you’ve probably noticed that the Ravens are set far apart with generous toe-in, so much so that you can envision a half-circle between the two axes behind the speaker. Since my listening room is small and contains a lot of furniture, I had to do some rearranging to get the Ravens to open up. In what I would call my default setting in my room—about eight feet apart—the Ravens had the correct tonality but suffered a little bit in soundstage width and depth. One of my sofas had to be moved into the guest bedroom during serious listening.
This is the hard part, because the Ravens do not sound like most high-end speakers. Few single-driver, high-efficiency speakers do. In this case, it’s not because the Ravens sound beamy or directional, or because all the performance is limited in the mid-band. When I say the Ravens sound different than most speakers, that’s a good thing.
First of all, that SEAS driver is a wonder. Did I get bass response down to 30 Hz? Definitely. At times the deep bass was so solid that it seemed to be originating beneath the floorboards. (In other words, I don’t need the port plug, and I don’t need no stinkin’ sub.) It’s not fair to credit just the driver for this carefully designed, meticulously crafted walnut cabinet. Christopher is the first to say that the design work of his team is a group effort, with contributions from Jason Paulding, Clark Brummett, Susan Rupert, Alex Snyder, and Eric Crider, who are the artisans responsible for the work this company produces.
The thickness of the panels, how they fit together, how they are affixed to each other—all of this matters when it comes to the ultimate sound. There are no happy accidents in the making of this speaker. Everything was planned, designed and tested until everyone was happy.
Christopher does give SEAS credit when it comes to the high frequencies, citing that this driver “delivers crisp details with snares, snaps, and other sharp sounds…while remaining smooth and warm in the more tonal elements like voices, horns and string instruments.” My impression is this: I’ve listened to quite a few single-driver designs in the last few years, and I’ve never heard one that was this balanced from top to bottom.
I’ve already said that the Ravens don’t sound like other speakers. I’ll give you an example of what I mean by that.
After T.H.E. Show 2019, I visited Ocean Way Studios with singer Lyn Stanley and we listened to a digital master of her direct-to-disc record London with a Twist: Live at Bernie’s. We listened to a system made largely of Ocean Way Sound gear—monitors, amps, etc. The sound was live, dynamic and rambunctious—in the way that only live performances sound. I imagine the album sounded almost identical to what was captured live in the studio.
When I listened to the LP at home, with a system that included the LTA Z10 integrated amp, the Technics SL-1200G turntable with ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge, PureAudio Vinyl phono preamp and Furutech cabling, it didn’t sound like the studio. It sounded like home. It sounded like the place where I want to listen to my music. The sound was relaxed, clear, warm and intimate. I enjoyed listening at Ocean Way Studios, but at home, in my listening room, I fell in love. I was cozy and I never wanted to leave my listening chair.
This, of course, brings us back to the idea of lifestyle products in high-end audio, and whether or not you can really have it all. First of all, the appearance of the Ravens cannot be understated. When I put a pair of speakers in my listening room, I think oh, this is a nice room centered around a stereo system. Sometimes the speakers blend in, but usually, they’re the first thing you notice.
With the Ravens in the system, the whole room becomes more beautiful, more integrated. It’s a place where you want to spend more time. It’s a place to invite friends, to have a memorable evening of music and laughter.
But Christopher Hildebrand and his Tektonics Design Group have created more than that. The Fern & Roby Raven loudspeakers, together with the LTA Z10, consistently provided me with the sound I want to live with in my home. You don’t own these components. You have a personal relationship with them. After some time, they start to reflect you and who you want to be when you go home at night and listen to music.
I don’t think I’ve had these thoughts before with any other high-end audio component. The Fern & Roby Raven loudspeakers are lifestyle products, but only because I love having them in my life.
Photo credits: Eric Franklin Shook, Christopher Hildebrand, Marc Phillips